Feb. 15 2012 12:59 AM
Is Green Really the New Gold?

You almost can’t avoid the swelling chorus urging you to to use alternative fuels in your mowers, trimmers, and other maintenance equipment: “Go green! Eco is where it’s at! Green is the new gold!”
Seldom has an industry movement gained importance so quickly. Take the test yourself. Type the phrase “eco-green” into your favorite search engine. Twenty years ago, that search might have drawn a blank. Today, it will return upwards of three million hits.

Alternative fuels are out there. Propane. Compressed natural gas. Biodiesel. electricity. even fuel cells. every major manufacturer, from Dixie Chopper to exmark to Hustler, offers equipment that isn’t powered by gasoline.

One company that has been very active in pioneering the use of alternative fuels is Dixie Chopper in Coatesville, Indiana. Simon Wilson, president of Dixie Chopper, says his company currently sells riding mowers with biodiesel, compressed natural gas, and propane capabilities, and that they’re actively working on electric prototypes. In addition to the leading brand names, new firms are also getting into the business.

Some landscape contractors have gone all-in on alternative fuels, others are experimenting, while still others—including big industry players—are less enthusiastic.

Is green really the new gold? Does it make sense for your firm to move into greener power pastures? If you’re already using alternative fuel resources, does it pay to continue? The answer is a definitive, “It depends.” This article gives suggestions about how to make that decision.

For Richard White of Good Green Neighbors, a landscape company in Portland, Oregon, the decision to go green was driven by a fierce environmentalism that’s shared by many in his community. White, 34, has been running Good Green Neighbors for almost a decade. He has modified every piece of his equipment to run on either propane or electricity provided by a portable propane generator. He also uses a battery-operated chainsaw.

“Eight years ago,” White relates, “I started paying attention to the environmental information. I read how one gas mower, running for an hour, creates as much hydrocarbon pollution as eight cars driven on the highway for eight hours. That shocked me. Then I saw hospitals, where people are treated for cancer, having their lawns cut with gas mowers. I mean, that’s like a cancer factory! I wanted to find a cleaner way.”

eight years ago, the alternative fuels industry was in its infancy. White explored moving to mowers powered by biodiesel—that mix of diesel fuel and long-chain alkylesters derived from soybeans or other plants. He loves diesel engines for their power and longevity. That said, he found that biodiesel wasn’t right for him. “I found the engines more powerful than the decks I was using. Plus, it was hard to find a shop willing to work on them.”

White admits he found his way to propane by accident. “I was just surfing around the Internet, and read something about propane. It looked interesting, but things were so new at the time that I had to figure out how to do a conversion on my own,” he recalls. “I found a company in Georgia that was running propane-powered gym-floor buffing equipment, because they couldn’t use gasoline indoors. I got a conversion kit from them, figured out how to make it work with my mowers, and never looked back. Propane is easy, clean, and cheap.”

Unbeknownst to White, a landscape contractor halfway across the country was contacting the same Georgia company. Eric Hansen, CEO of Competitive Lawn Service, Downer’s Grove, Illinois, had a company that burned 35,000 gallons of gasoline a year in its mowers and vehicles—an enormous annual fuel bill. He’d been intrigued by news that Dixie Chopper had unveiled a new propane-powered riding mower. Hansen already had a large fleet of riders and standers.

Hansen’s motivation was as much economic as it was environmental. Propane runs 40 cents a gallon less than regular gasoline, according to the united States Department of energy’s quarterly “Clean Cities Alternative Fuel Price Report.” If he could make the conversion, he was looking at substantial fuel savings.

“I looked at compressed natural gas (CNG), too,” Hansen explains, “which costs half of what even propane costs. If I could make it work, that would have been the way to go. What I learned was that the problem with CNG isn’t as much powering the equipment as it was fueling up in the first place.”

Since Competitive Lawn Service runs dozens of mowers and several trucks, getting all these vehicles to a public CNG refueling station wasn’t feasible. “To build a CNG storage facility of our own would have cost a half million dollars,” Hansen says. “That was out of the question.”

As an experiment, Hansen began by converting three Wright standers to propane. That first year, those standers used 500 gallons of propane. The experiment worked so well that Hansen kept retrofitting. In 2011, he estimates that propane accounted for two-thirds of his fuel use.

He has built a propane pump and storage container—for which he got a 60 percent federal tax credit for infrastructure investment—and just bought three propane-powered Ford F Series trucks. The only area where he’s been slow to convert is with trimmers and blowers. He’s waiting for suppliers to improve battery technology. That equipment, he underscores, burns so little fuel that cost impact is minimal.

With all these apparent pluses, alternative fuels have not yet gone mainstream.

Kujawa enterprises in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, is taking a wait-and-see approach, according to company president Chris Kujawa. “Those mowers are not mainstream enough yet,” Kujawa avows. “Not enough for us.”

For Kujawa, the uncertainty is the biggest negative factor. “There’s too much we don’t know about yet. We don’t know the hassle factor of fueling once they’re in a fleet. We don’t know the nuts and bolts of fuel transport. We don’t know the drag coefficient when you’re cutting tall grass. I know there are companies using alternative fuels. God bless ‘em if they’re successful, but we’re not ready to make the change.”

Both environmentalism and economics are good reasons to switch to alternative fuels. Differentiating yourself in a competitive market is another, particularly when you’re just breaking into the business, or going out on your own after years of working for someone else.

Florida brothers Jeremy and Jared Phillips worked for a landscape contractor for years before opting to start their own enterprise, evoscape. They live in Orlando, a highly competitive market. Jeremy acknowledges the realities of a startup when the consumer has many options. “We knew the business well enough to understand that we knew we couldn’t do the same old thing. We’d be just another landscape maintenance company.”

The Phillips brothers’ solution was to go green, and make sure everyone knew it. evoscape is green everything. Mowers, trimmers, clippers, you name it. Nothing runs on gas.

The brothers are off to a good start. They’ve added two more crew members to share the workload. One of the keys to the company’s early success is the quirky, 35 mile-an-hour top-speed electric vehicle and trailer combination they use to get to and from local jobs. Manufactured by Chrysler and appealingly goofy looking, the “EVO-1”—as the brothers call it—and the solar-panel-equipped trailer it pulls, gives evoscape street credibility. The solar panels allow for equipment battery recharging through the workday. The EVO-1 isn’t highway-rated, but serves as a 24/7 rolling advertisement anyway. Phillips has recently added a propane-powered van as well.

Fort Collins, Colorado-based landscape contracting franchisor Clean Air Lawn Care sees major opportunity in the startup arena. The company provides a national brand for franchisees that operates with 100 percent alternative fuels. According to Nate Weigel, national sales manager, Clean Air has 32 franchisees; six came on board in calendar 2011, and one already in 2012. Clean Air mowers are mostly electric, with a few biodiesel riders. “We think electric is more sustainable, and more environmentally suitable, than the other alternative fuel options,” says Weigel.

Like evoscape’s EVO-1, Clean Air trucks are topped by solar panels, so battery-operated mowers and trimmers can be recharged on the job. The trucks run on gas, but Clean Air tracks mileage and purchases carbon offsets so the firm can claim carbon-neutrality.

Weigel points to another reason that a company may want to move to alternative fuel: the interest of some commercial accounts in going green. “Large corporations are looking to reduce greenhouse gases. A green landscape service provider helps them reach that goal.”

Hansen isn’t as sure that a commercial account is going to be more environmentally conscious than bottom line conscious. In his experience, residential customers, multifamily accounts, and even municipalities are stretched so thin financially, that cost trumps hydrocarbons. unless “g-r-e-e-n” spells “less expensive,” he thinks—with one significant exception—that these accounts are likely to be unmoved.

Here’s the exception: companies that manufacture products in their factories. Hansen has seen real success with marketing low-hydrocarbon services to companies with factories. “They’re being scrutinized, so by awarding a maintenance contract to a “green” contractor, they can say they are helping reduce hydrocarbons. There are similar opportunities with LeeD-certified buildings, which get extra points for green maintenance.”

Howard Mees, vice president of equipment and operations at Valley- Crest in Calabasas, California, buys mowers in large quantities for that  mega-firm. So far, he’s not jumping into alternative fuel equipment in any meaningful way.

“Right now, for us, alternative fuel mowers are customer driven,” Mees explains. “That is, if a customer wants us to use alternative fuel mowers, because they’re a LEED building or have environmental concerns, we’ll be responsive—we own a few. Otherwise, I’m not yet convinced.”

Mees is dubious that the cost of ownership of alternative fuel mowers is superior to that of gas machines. “We’re not going to retrofit, like some smaller outfits might. We buy new equipment. If we’re buying new equipment, we’re comparing, say, a propane mower to one of the new fuel-injected gas mowers. Meanwhile, it takes more propane than gasoline, gallon for gallon, to cut the same lawn. Besides, the new fuel-injected engines can substantially reduce fuel costs. ” Moreover, ValleyCrest operates from leased, as opposed to owned, physical plants and properties. It’s harder to justify the creation of infrastructure for a propane or natural gas storage-and-fueling facility on a leased property that will eventually be returned to the owner.

Mees acknowledges that even though alternative fuel mowers have gained an important foothold in the marketplace, “ValleyCrest will wait until the technology is more stable, and all the kinks and bugs are worked out.”

Whether you’re using them or not, it’s indisputable that alternative fuel mowers and technology continue to improve. The industry has come a long way from the days when Hansen and White were reverse engineering floor-buffing machines.

The electrical sector, particularly, has seen big progress. In 2008, Hustler introduced the zeon, a riding zero-turning-radius electric mower. This year, Mean Green Products in Okeana, Ohio, took the concept a step further, with a ZT riding mower that has a removable, interchangeable, and rechargeable battery pack.

“The pack runs the mower for two hours,” declares company president Joe Conrad. “When it starts to run low, you’ll feel the diminution in power. At very low battery power, the cutting blades shut down, with enough reserve juice for the operator to drive the mower a mile back to the truck.”

Then, it’s battery swap-out time. In a three-minute operation, using a special dolly that functions like a mini forklift, the operator slides out the dead battery pack and slides in one that’s fully charged.

Green innovation is not limited to mowers. Core Outdoor Power, of Ronan, Montana, is bringing out a line of trimmers and hedges with a power pack that features slip-in, slip-out lithium ion batteries that they like to call power cells, and an innovative electric engine that weighs less than half of conventional engines.

With a field life of an hour, and a one-hour recharge time, a crew needs just two cells to get through the day. Company president Lincoln Jore says the combination of the lightweight engine with the removable power cell creates a technology that someday can be employed in commercial electric riding mowers.

Green innovation is being done at the lowest levels—in garages instead of R&D labs. Dan Delventhal, who runs MowGreen US, in Fairfield, Connecticut, experimented for years with the conversion of a self-propelled 22" mower to hydrogen power.

“We got it done, and learned a ton along the way,” Delventhal reports. “But it was just too expensive at the time to make a go of it. I believe that will change in the years to come.”

There are plenty of options if you want to go green. Hansen points out how landscape contractors are besieged by information clutter on the subject. “You hear, ‘Go green, go green!’ One person is touting CNG, another biodiesel, another propane, another electric. It makes the contractor want to throw up his hands and stick with what he’s got.’” Sticking with what you’ve got is an option. It might even be a good option. But if environmentalism is a strong selling point in your market, or if a retrofit makes sense, or you’re cracking into a market and want to differentiate yourself from the competition, or you’ve got potential accounts who are watching their hydrocarbons, it might be time for you to switch to alternative fuels, at least in part.

For you, green could be the new gold.